The unique electromotility of the outer hair cell (OHC) is believed to promote sharpening of the passive mechanical vibration of the mammalian basilar membrane. The cell also presents a voltage-dependent capacitance, or equivalently, a nonlinear gating current, which correlates well with its mechanical activity, suggesting that membrane-bound voltage sensor-motor elements control OHC length. We report that the voltage dependence of the gating charge and motility are directly related to membrane stress induced by intracellular pressure. A tracking procedure was devised to continuously monitor the voltage at peak capacitance (VpkCm) after obtaining whole cell voltage clamp configuration. In addition, nonlinear capacitance was more fully evaluated with a stair step voltage protocol. Upon whole cell configuration, VpkCm was typically near -20 mV. Negative patch pipette pressure caused a negative shift in VpkCm, which obtained a limiting value near the normal resting potential of the OHC (approximately -70 mV) at the point of cell collapse. Positive pressure in the pipette caused a positive shift that could reach values greater than 0 mV. Measures of the mechanical activity of the OHC mirrored those of charge movement. Similar membrane-tension dependent peak shifts were observed after the cortical cytoskeletal network was disrupted by intracellular dialysis of trypsin from the patch pipette. We conclude that unlike stretch receptors, which may sense tension through elastic cytoskeletal elements, the OHC motor senses tension directly. Furthermore, since the voltage dependence of the OHC nonlinear capacitance and motility is directly regulated by intracellular turgor pressure, we speculate that modification of intracellular pressure in vivo provides a mechanism for controlling the gain of the mammalian "cochlear amplifier".